The tragedy of the Columbia was merely the pretext for the cancellation of the program. For years, the shuttle program has been a target for much political debate. Despite its continued success, the political parties in the US used its existence as a point of contention over everything from military spending to social welfare programs. Republicans generally pushed for continuing the shuttle missions at any cost, leveraging its symbolism as a point of pride among other nations. Many also promoted the fact that everyday tools and products could be created from the scientific breakthroughs. Democrats often had the policy that the money spent on much of the space program would be better put toward domestic concerns. While both sides had proponents and opponents, cuts to the space shuttle were generally considered off limits.
How much of the cancellation was political? Too much, I think. With the nation at war following the September 11 attacks and the Bush administration losing its footing, it was an easy target for spending cuts. The same holds true for the Obama administration. With the economic collapse in 2008, the space shuttle program looked like a frilly adventure in the face of regular Americans concerned with getting through college, making a mortgage payment or simply putting food on the table.
In a world without flying cars or sci-fi transporters, previous presidents stood by the space shuttle no matter what. Sometimes they even garnered political gain from it. No president supported the grandeur and mystique the shuttle offered more than Ronald Reagan. President at the time of the first launch through the Challenger disaster, his speeches hearkening a greater glory in the shuttle still bring goosebumps to many space aficionados, regardless of political belief. With bold imagery and a grandfatherly voice, he knew the space shuttle missions meant something more to the population. In spite of tough economic times, a war on drugs or a perceived decline in the moral fabric of the nation, our collective spirit followed those brave astronauts into orbit and back to the safety of the Earth. We knew that no matter what happened, the space shuttle was our ticket to a grand future.
Watch Ronald Reagan's Challenger Speech